Sharp row over colonialist Rhodes’ statue at Oxford

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Jan 13, 2016 21:42 IST
Students and alumni of Oriel College have signed petitions demanding that the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes be removed from the college’s walls. (Photo courtesy: University of Oxford)

Several Indians have benefited from the Rhodes Scholarship over the years but the colonial figure behind the scholarship – Cecil Rhodes – is raising hackles in the University of Oxford, with students demanding his statue in Oriel College be taken down.

Under the banner of “Rhodes Must Fall”, the demand has raised a host of questions in the ancient university about the uses of history, political correctness and the purpose of statues and memorials. The chancellor and the new vice-chancellor have been drawn into the debate.

Rhodes (1853-1902) was a prosperous and controversial colonial era British businessman in South Africa, who left behind a large sum of money to Oriel College for the scholarship. There have been over 8,000 Rhodes Scholars from India and elsewhere, including leading figures.

Arushi Garg, an Indian Rhodes Scholar, is one of the co-founders of the “Rhodes Must Fall” student movement at Oxford. It was started in South Africa, where the movement led to the taking down of Rhodes’ statue in the University of Cape Town.

Thousands of Oxford alumni and others have signed rival petitions, seeking the statue’s removal or stay. Oriel College, where Rhodes studied, said it is acting on the student’s petition on removing the statue as it is keen to improve the experience of non-white students.

Recalling his historical legacy in the form of the scholarship programme, the college said: “But Rhodes was also a 19th-century colonialist whose values and world view stand in absolute contrast to the ethos of the Scholarship programme today, and to the values of a modern University.”

The college is launching a “six month listening exercise” from February, seeking views and ideas of students and staff of the college and the University, alumni, heritage bodies, Oxford City Council, residents of Oxford and other members of the public.

Opposing the students’ demand, Oxford chancellor Chris Patten said: “We are giving them the respect to listening to their views even if we don’t agree with them. But if people at our university aren’t prepared to show the generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history…then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.”

He added: “Our cities are built with the proceeds of activities, the slave trade and so on, which today would be regarded as completely unacceptable…Any views that Cecil Rhodes had about the British Empire and about race were common at the time...What do you do about our history?”

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